Launched in 1896 by Lord Northcliffe, the Daily Mail is an award-winning newspaper which aims to deliver the latest headlines and compelling content to its millions of readers every day – the highest circulation in the United Kingdom. It has also been heavily criticised for its sensationalist reporting and there have been many successful lawsuits brought against the publisher, especially for libel damages.
This guide focuses on the relationship between the audience and the newspaper with the application of media theories to develop our understanding of why the institution is engaging. We will also discuss to what extent the Daily Mail reflects its owners rather than the interests of their readers.
Daily Mail Demographics
According to the brand report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), the Daily Mail shifts an average of around 960,000 copies per issue. This is a combination of the print and digital editions.
DMG Media suggest their newspaper can boast an impressive 2 million readers every day and its Saturday edition is the number one selling newspaper in the UK. In terms of demographics, unusually for a national paper, the majority of readers are women.
This data is reinforced by YouGov research which found the newspaper was more popular among women compared to men.
It should be no surprise the Daily Mail publishes content that appeals to the ambitions and frustrations of its target audience.
The Daily Mail claims to be “in touch with the hearts and minds of Middle England” because it engages with the “concerns, hopes and lifestyles of this powerful audience”. Their typical reader has strong spending power and would consider themselves to be “adventurous”.
The original owner, Lord Northcliffe, described the paper’s target audience as “people who liked to think they earned £1,000 a year”. Perhaps he was picturing an employee with an inflated sense of self-importance and position in the world.
In terms of the cross-cultural consumer categorisation, better known as the 4Cs, we might label this audience as succeeders because they “possess self-confidence” with a “core need” for “control”. The Daily Mail also publishes lots of stories on the monarchy, so we can safely assume their audience are traditionalists as defined by the VALS’ UK consumer groups. This group likes “established standards” and wants to “regulate social change” and “ethical codes”. Constraineds would also be appropriate.
The Daily Mail considers itself to be a moral entrepreneur against the evil folk devils, so you should have no trouble finding stories and opinion pieces which express outrage towards some sort of social transgression.
Why do Readers Engage with Newspapers?
Uses and gratifications theories explore the reasons why we deliberately choose to consume particular media texts. The most common motivations are surveillance, personal identity, relationships, and diversion. The Daily Mail satisfies each of these demands.
Surveillance is obvious because readers want to know what is happening in the world and newspapers try to provide the latest information about the most important stories of the day. The Daily Mail also has plenty of celebrity gossip, entertainment news, business reports, and comprehensive sports coverage to gratify our curiosity.
The weekly sections epitomise the newspaper’s appeal to their readers’ personal identity. For instance, the Inspire supplement aims to make the audience “feel good about themselves” and the Good Health section promises to “help readers of all ages improve their well-being”.
In his summary of identity, David Gauntlett explained how we often use media representations to construct versions of ourselves. By following the inspirational stories and expert advice in these sections, we can improve our mental and physical health, enhance our finances, and keep our style up to date with their “fabulous fashion and beauty ideas”.
It is also worth noting the Daily Mail has a very loyal following who like to identify themselves as “Daily Mail readers”.
Many Daily Mail readers enjoy the paper because of the familiarity they feel towards the columnists. There are some big personalities at the paper, such as Peter Hitchens, Amanda Platell and Richard Littlejohn, who are not afraid to voice their (controversial) opinions. Of course, readers can then post their own ideas in the comments section online. The level of engagement is very impressive and demonstrates how the newspaper satisfies our need for relationships.
This category is very similar to the social belonging concept in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which also explored people’s behaviour and motivation.
Consumers like to engage with media texts because they provide a diversion from the stresses and strains of the real world, so it might seem paradoxical for readers to purchase a copy of the Daily Mail to escape everyday life. However, the humble crossword continues to entertain audiences. Think about the incredible success of the web-based game Wordle, which is now owned by the New York Times. Many papers still challenge the reader to complete popular number game, Suduko.
The Daily Mail also includes cartoon strips in the Coffee Break page, such as the infamous Garfield.
Many critics would argue newspapers and their weekly supplements are simply a form of entertainment because they focus on soft news rather than current affairs.
From Soft News to Sensationalism
News stories are often divided into two groups:
- Hard news refers to stories which have regional, national, or international significance, such politics, economics, current affairs, and international events.
- Soft news blurs the lines between information and entertainment. They tend to focus on human interest stories, celebrity gossip, lifestyle, sport, and entertainment.
As a middle-market tabloid newspaper, the black-top Daily Mail occupies the space between the broadsheets, which cover hard news, and the sensationalist tabloid press.
According to Curran and Seaton (2009), between 1927 and 1937, the Daily Mail “almost halved” its coverage of “political, social and economic news” in its total output because the publisher knew their readers were more interested in soft news. For example, a report commissioned by the News Chronicle in 1933 revealed “the most-read news in popular daily papers were stories about accidents, crime, divorce and human interest” compared to “categories of public affairs news” which had “only an average or below-average readership rating”.
Soft news sells. Sensationalism sells more.
Lord Northcliffe once pestered his journalists to find “one murder a day” because he understood his readers’ need to be shocked and outraged.
In the chapter entitled Power without Responsibility, Curran suggested newspapers deliberately set out to anger their readers in the early 2000s. The Daily Mail’s moral panic about immigration is a good example of the way the paper positions the audience to opposite a particular policy.
Another strategy was to frighten the reader. In 1998, an unsubstantiated link was made between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and the onset of autism. The Daily Mail gave the story prominent coverage because it was “compelling reading”. It also helped cause a rise in measles cases in England and Wales, including a significant jump in 2009, because public confidence in the vaccine had dropped in response to the news reports. Those discredited stories continue to have an impact.
Curran argued newspapers were commercial organisations which were mostly driven by the “imperatives of profit and power”. The increasingly competitive market led to sensationalist reporting and unethical journalism. Clickbait headlines are the inevitable progression of this trend.
Incentives and Promotions
Newspapers have used a variety of promotions, coupons and competitions to increase their circulation. The Daily Mail provided free insurance schemes to attract more readers. For example, in 1927, registered readers were able to claim £20,000 in compensation if their husband or wife was killed in a train accident while travelling.
A legal judgment banned the use of competitions and lotteries in 1928, so newspapers began to use free gifts to shift copies. Consumers were offered cameras, wristwatches, and teakettles for taking out a newspaper subscription.
The Daily Mail continues to use incentives to encourage readers to pick up a copy of the newspaper. The best examples come from the TravelMail section which gives readers the chance to win incredible holidays to exotic locations, but there are always coupons and discounts available for well-known brands.
Decoding the Daily Mail
Stuart Hall imagined three decoding positions. The preferred reading understands and accepts the message being communicated by the producer. This is probably the position taken by a significant number of Daily Mail readers who appreciate its right-wing views on current affairs and weekly sections.
Some readers might take a negotiated stance. When you select a specific edition to analyse, carefully assess the stories and look for moments when you accept the perspectives of the journalists but believe there is a more significant interpretation of the event.
The third decoding position is the oppositional reading where the reader understands the meanings but completely rejects the message. Again, look for examples when you believe the reporters are inappropriately biased and are skewing the story.
The Impact on the Audience
To what extent are the dedicated readers of the Daily Mail influenced by the right-wing politics of the paper? Do they simply accept the hard-line positions taken on Brexit and the UK’s relationship with the European Union?
The cultivation theory suggests our view of the world is shaped by the amount of television we watch, so “heavy users” are more likely to think their neighbourhoods are violent because they are seeing lots of violence on the small screen. George Gerbner called this impact mean world syndrome. Is the Daily Mail’s obsession with immigration distorting the reality of the situation?
It is also worth considering the publisher’s ability to set the agenda through its framing of news stories. The campaign for justice over the murder of Stephen Lawrence was commendable. First raising the issue in 2008, the paper was one of the biggest voices to call for a ban on plastic microbeads and other plastic pollution. Some of its other perspectives are more divisive.
The MailOnline is a trailblazing global phenomenon, receiving an incredible 24.9 monthly unique visitors and becoming one of the world’s largest English-speaking newspaper websites. Instead of putting their content behind paywalls or implementing a subscription model, such as the i newspaper, the Daily Mail uploaded their content for free and relied on advertising and affiliations for revenue.
For instance, the travel section reports on holiday destinations around the world. However, it is also an effective marketplace because travel companies are able to promote their opportunities to an eager audience. There is also a Discount page where users can save money using the Daily Mail’s voucher codes and a Best Buy section the paper makes a commission each time someone makes a purchase.
Our analysis of the i newspaper also explores the relationship between newspapers and their readers. You should also read our guide to front pages for more information on the codes and conventions of newspapers.